Documentary Review: Lessons from Byzantium

I finally watched the film Гибель Империи. Византийский урок (Death of an Empire: the Byzantine Lesson), narrated by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the father-confessor of Vladimir Putin. This film takes a stylized interpretation of the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire – the root cause of which is attributed to mystical factors such as loss of faith in indigenous traditions, the state, and God – and implicitly (and at the end explicitly) draws lessons for modern-day Russia about the dangers of corruption, poshlost, and denigration of national traditions in favor of indiscriminate copying of foreign ways.

One could (rightly) quibble at the film’s ahistoricity, selective coverage, and slanted rhetoric. It is questionable that the West’s plundering of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade was what spurred the development of European capitalism, and so is the assertion that the fundamental cause of Byzantium’s final defeat to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was due to its recognition of papal supremacy. The arguments eschew rigorous analysis, instead relying on “mystical” explanations based on “life and death biological growth analogies of life and death and vaguely defined concepts of “vigor” and “decadence””, which are unscientific, albeit aesthetic (and hence persuasive). So it is justifiable for the academic historian or the “Western chauvinist” to dismiss the film out of hand.

However, that is to miss the point, which is that the film is political, following in the Russian Orthodox Church’s long tradition of legitimizing the Russian state. It is also a reflection of the feelings of the current Kremlin elites and a majority of the Russian population.

Below is the film, as well as some good expositions and reviews, after which my own review is continued.

In the film, Father Tikhon expounds on importance of a strong power vertical, family values, control over oligarch predation, suppression of separatism, martial values, and state support for agriculture, manufacturing, and the Church. He likewise condemns the court intrigues, corruption, and promotion of Greek ethnic dominance that undermined the administrative power and ideological cohesiveness of the late Byzantine Empire. Above all, he stresses the dangers of adopting an uncritically submissive attitude towards Western cultural imports, which tended to erase older values (along with faith in the future), and which furthermore tended to be very inefficiently applied.

The implications for today’s Russia are perfectly clear. In Father Tikhon’s vision, the state should play an active role in effecting a spiritual revival in Russia, to transform it into an Orthodox-Eurasian Empire, which could be characterized by producerism, derzhavnost, and sobornost, and one unbeholden to the West.

This is not to say that it should reject Western innovations entirely, but it should apply them gradually, moderately, and with level-headed consideration. Furthermore, they must be avoided entirely if they challenge its core civilizational values. The Bolshevik importation of Marxism unto the Russian lands is mentioned as a regrettable example of the consequences of deviating from this philosophy. (Though at the end of the film, he even makes a qualified accolade to Stalin for the 1943 rehabilitation of Byzantinism, which had previously been suppressed, during the wartime patriotic revival).

As such, the film should not be viewed as a Byzantine history, but as an insight into the restorationist, conservative, and neo-Tsarist nature of Putinism… and as a guide to its possible future evolution. An evolution whose outlines are already emerging in trends as disparate as rising Russian protectionism, the clampdown on the oligarchs, neo-imperial rhetoric, Medvedev’s anti-alcohol measures, and incipient military revival. An evolution that is fast returning Russia to its past-and-future Empire.

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